Monday, March 9, 2020

"I'd like children to feel the joy, because that’s what Zakir Hussain is about"

Our hot off the press picture book Zakir and His Tabla - Dha Dhin Na by award-winning author and illustrator, Sandhya Rao and Priya Kuriyan, introduces children to a musical maestro, whose busy fingers and flying curls make him the inimitable Zakir Hussain

In the first of this two-part series, we spoke to Sandhya Rao, who gives us a closer look into what went on behind the scenes. 

How did you start conceiving of the thread of the narrative?

To be honest, I don’t remember. All I know is I grew more and more fascinated as I gathered more and more information about his growing years. I don’t think there’s anyone on earth who doesn’t love Zakir Hussain. I’m a big fan, always have been. Of his father, too. I guess there was so much information I just decided to do the simple thing and start at somewhere in the beginning since that’s what we know less about.

This book follows the journey of a tabla virtuoso through interesting events from his life. How did you go about researching this book?

First of all, I spent a great deal of time listening to his music. Thanks to the internet and thanks to music connoisseurs and fans, so much is available on YouTube. Old and new concerts. With masters and contemporary musicians. You watch him and you are watching joy as it's unravelling. Then I watched or read interviews, this film made by Sumantra Ghosh is brilliant, as also the book based on Nasreen Munni Kabir’s interviews with Zakir. Plus I read and watched whatever I could lay my hands on. Then, I returned to the feelings I had experienced listening to him with his Shakti group way back when I was young. I kept researching, but didn’t really keep notes. I let the things that left an impression on my mind remain with me, and that’s what guided the approach and tone of the book.

You have captured personal moments through conversation. Was it a challenge to put those words in quotes, drawing from ‘information’? How much liberty did you feel you could take in dialogue?

Actually the conversations are based on actual comments made by himself or others and are attributed as such, even though they are not exactly what they said. I imagined how they might have said it, depending upon who was speaking and the age of the speaker. All the people in the book are real. But since I didn’t know them personally, I had to imagine them. Reading, researching, I had formed some impressions of what kind of personalities they might have been. So, even though the various dialogues are not verbatim, they reflect the reality (I hope that comes through) as I understood it.

What would you like children to see in this book? A different childhood? A different environment… All of this and anything more?

Firstly, I would like children to feel the joy, because that’s what Zakir Hussain is about, joy. And joy comes from love: love of music, love of family, love of explorations, love of sharing, love of learning, love of people, love of teachers… And that’s the other thing I’d like children to feel when they see this book: Love. It’s so tangible in his personality and in his music. Music in itself transcends all differences and I feel that has been part of Zakir Hussain’s music from the very beginning, because that’s what he inherited from his father, the amazing Allarakha. That’s what he received from Ali Akbar Khan Sahib, and Ravi Shankar Sahib, from his mother, his sisters… even the Pathani band he played with as a child. No, it’s not about showing sameness in differences. It’s about finding joy, finding love, sharing.

I would also like children to see that though Zakir Hussain was a prodigy, a genius, he's had to work very hard indeed to achieve the heights he has. Practice, practice, practice: that is the mantra, the same mantra that applies to everybody. That's what made Ravishankar who he was, Allarakha who he became, Ali Akbar Khan... every single person will endorse the importance of practising regularly and hard. You cannot take talent for granted.

Working on each book can be very different, but can you tell us what was most defining in this experience.

Listening to the music without feeling guilty!!! Reading without feeling guilty! Watching without feeling guilty! Watching some amazing footage, like Alauddin Khan Sahib teasing his wife as he played for her, a young Zakir being appreciated by a smiling Allarakha… So many moving moments. Zakir Hussain himself listening to little boys playing for him, beautifully and seriously. These are such moving moments that you wonder why we cannot all appreciate and enjoy the beautiful experiences we are lucky to have instead of spewing hate upon each other.

How easy or difficult is it writing narrative non-fiction for children in relation to fiction, and what should one keep an eye out for when attempting narrative non-fiction?

It would be presumptuous of me to try and give instructions, so I won’t. But there is one thing about narrative non-fiction and that’s sticking to the truth. Of course, we know that each one’s understanding of truth is different: look what we’re doing with our history textbooks for instance. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the truth that emanates from inside and that has to do with emotions, feelings, relationships, engagements, interactions, apart from events.

Tell us about your writing process.

Most of the time, it’s hard, and hard work. It takes a long time to get to what you think is right and then you read what you’ve written by light of day and you know it’s all rubbish. Being honest is what I strive for and it’s not easy because very often you end up showing off, and when you realise that’s what you’re doing, there’s so much baggage to deal with!

Starting trouble: now, that’s a major roadblock. But like my friend Jinoy says, just put it down, you can always delete it!

It’s hard to take criticism, so I try not to take it personally. I value the opinions of a couple of people, and then take the final call myself. In the end, I am responsible for what I write, right or wrong, good or bad. 

Anyone else you would enjoy bringing to life for children? And why?

The world is full of amazing people with amazing stories. Talk to the person sitting next to you on the bus and you will unearth a treasure. That’s what I’ve found. I can’t think of any one person or persons, really. Gandhiji has been the subject of my interest for a long long time and I continue to dig up material concerning him. But, to answer your question, it could be anybody: I read an amazing book on Aurangzeb, for instance, by Audrey Truschke. Equally, I have enjoyed reading Ramesh Menon’s Ramayana because he simply tells the story. So it’s a vast spectrum. The important thing is to understand a person from the inside, not the outside.

                                Grab your copy of the book Zakir and His Tabla — Dha Dhin Na!

Sandhya Rao is an award-winning children’s author, whose rich and unexpected experiences with people, places and ideas led to writing for children. She has written over 25 books for Tulika. They range from picture books, exuberant folktales and playful verse to quietly reflective stories. Among her bestselling titles are Ekki Dokki, Picture Gandhi, My Mother’s Sari (chosen Outstanding International Book by USBBY), and My Friend, the Sea (winner Berliner Kinder and Jugendbuchpreis.)

Friday, February 14, 2020

"I often sit and wonder why I was drawn towards Ramanujan’s story"

Our hot off the press picture book Srinivasa Ramanujan: Friend of Numbers written by Priya Narayanan and illustrated by Satwik Gade, follows the singular fascination of a mathematical genius. 

In the second of this two-part series, we bring to you a compelling guest post by author Priya Narayanan, who gives us a closer look into her exciting journey of discovering and exploring the life of her mathematical muse. In the first part, we chatted with illustrator Satwik Gade on his art, books and interests. 

Three years back, in 2016, hubby dear bought the book The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel. It was supposedly a well-researched biography of the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan. Not a fan of biographies then, I let the book rest on my shelf for a whole six months before I started reading it. 

Until then, I had only heard passing mentions of Ramanujan, never read about him — surprisingly, not even an anecdote or snippet from his life. So, Kanigel’s book came as a surprise. It immediately drew me into its pages, taking me back to an era (Ramanujan was born on 22nd Dec, 1887) that was hitherto unknown to me except in the context of India’s freedom struggle.

For reasons unknown, the book had a profound effect on me. No sooner than I had finished reading it, I got an opportunity to go to Chennai. I immediately made up my mind to visit Kumbakonam, where Ramanujan had spent the better part of his short life. From Chennai, I took an overnight train to the small, dusty town on the banks of the Kaveri — the journey in itself was rather amusing, with my second class compartment being populated by men wearing white lungis and white shirts and women wearing gold jewelry that offset their lips and tongues that had turned red with chewing betel leaf.

Once in Kumbakonam, I spent half a day at Sarangapani Sannidhi Street that was, at one time, witness to the many eccentricities of my newfound muse. Ramanujan’s house -recently renovated after escaping demolition, thanks to our late President APJ Abdul Kalam’s intervention — sat sandwiched between two other houses that had been converted into shops. A set of steps invited me into this narrow house that stretched backwards in length. The blue columns weren’t blue during Ramanujan’s time; I’m sure they weren’t even painted then. The well laid Mangalore tiles weren’t there during his time either — the house had a thatch roof then.

But the columns and roof didn’t matter to me. What mattered was the high plinth on which Ramanujan sat as a child with a slate and chalk and worked on his mathematical ideas. What mattered was the window behind which was the tiny room with a single wooden bed under which Ramanujan hid to solve equations as a child because his father would get angry if he saw him do something so useless! Further inside was a small living room (that’s now a memorial of sorts), kitchen and the backyard with a well.

Srinivasa Ramanujan's house in Kumbakonam

It was indeed a humbling experience to stand inside that house, on that street, in that dusty town from where Ramanujan had started a mathematical journey that took him all the way to England and back. But, as Kanigel’s book informed me, Ramanujan wasn’t just about mathematics. His short life (he was 32 when he passed away) was a tapestry woven from numerous strands, each as interesting as the other. He was a staunch Vaishnavite Brahmin, who not only knew his scriptures but dissected and discussed them even as he brooded on the concepts of ‘shunya’ and ‘infinity’. He was highly superstitious, with an interest in astrology as well as the occult. He was a quintessential ‘mama’s boy’ who fell back upon his mother for everything in his life. Be it narrating stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharatha and the Puranas, or imparting knowledge about their traditions or teaching him to pray and become a devotee of the Goddess Namagiri of Namakkal or playing with him, his favorite board game — the Aadu Puli Aatam (Goats and Tigers), or giving that vital push towards achieving his mathematical goal, Komalatammal was instrumental in nurturing her son’s love for math and standing up for him when it mattered. Finally, there was also a strange dichotomy about Ramanujan — while he was confident about his mathematical prowess, he was extremely insecure about everything he did, yearned for recognition of his genius, and took offense at the tiniest of alleged faux pas by friends or peers.

Sitting on the steps in the backyard of his house, I recollected excerpts from Kanigel’s book and found myself drawn to this complex, intriguing character from the past. Soon, I was trying to imagine Ramanujan’s childhood, figuring out how his surroundings could have contributed to his love for mathematics. As I did so, quite unknown to me, a seed was sown into my thoughts — a seed of an idea for a book for children based on Ramanujan’s life story. Researching for the book, I ended up reading many more papers and books that talked about his life and works — most importantly, S R. Ranganathan’s Ramanujan: The Man and the Mathematician. Today, that idea is on its way to becoming a reality. My picture book biography on the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan has charted its own journey.

But that is only half my story.

Being an interior architect, my first connect with people is through the spaces they inhabit. So, after visiting his Kumbakonam house, I wanted to now visit all other places he’d been to or stayed in. This wasn’t easy, given that my city of residence isn’t anywhere near these places and that I have a home, office and my kids to tend to. However, they don’t say — if you wish for something with all your heart it does become a reality, for nothing. So intense was my wish of understanding the enigma that was Ramanujan that serendipity offered me a few chances to catch up with my muse. Earlier this year, I got another opportunity to visit Chennai. I made the most of it by visiting the house he’d briefly stayed in, in Triplicane, thanks to a dear friend. I then hunted down the site of the house he’d breathed his last in — unfortunately, the house is no longer in existence and another house that he’d briefly lived in after his return from England.

Then, as luck would have it, I got an opportunity for an academic visit to London. After my professional commitments, I stayed back for a few days to visit places in London and Cambridge that my muse had been to. And so, with the help of Richard Chapling, a young mathematician and Trinity alumnus, who started off as a total stranger but ended up being a dear friend, I traced Ramanujan and his mentor Godfrey Harold Hardy across London and Cambridge. Together, Richard and I walked the walk that Hardy once described as being the ‘most distinguished walk’* – from his home at St. George’s Square, along the Grosvenor Road and across the Vauxhall Bridge to the Oval. We visited the house in Putney that is famed for being the place where Ramanujan had the legendary conversation with Hardy about the number 1729, we traveled to Cambridge to visit the Trinity College where he had spent five precious years, the Wren Library where his original letter to Hardy has been preserved, the Centre for Mathematical Sciences where his bust sits in splendor. We paused at the houses he’d stayed in at different points of time, we walked down the streets he would have once walked… back in London, I hunted down the house on Cromwell Road that Ramanujan had stayed in when he first arrived in London — the building is now home to the French Embassy.

Visiting all these places was a strangely emotional journey for me – strange, because here I was, getting affected by places that I had no immediate connect to. I often sit and wonder why I was drawn towards Ramanujan’s story. A friend recently tried to impress upon me the idea of ‘past connections’ and ‘karma’. I’d be lying if I said I’m not tempted to agree with him in this context.

There are some more places with a Ramanujan connect in India that await me, and there is a more detailed story of his inside of me that needs to be told (perhaps, for older children). I guess I’ll get that sense of closure only when both these journeys are completed… and I hope it happens sometime soon enough.

Today, though, I’m going to celebrate Ramanujan’s birthday by sharing the Magic Square he’d worked out based on the date of his birth: 22-12-1887 (exploring possibilities with these squares was one of Ramanujan’s earliest mathematical preoccupations).

For those who do not know, a Magic Square is square grid in which a given set of unique positive integers are arranged such that each cell has a different integer and the sum of integers in every row, column and diagonal is equal. In the above case, the sum in each case is 139. It is a happy coincidence (I’m sure Ramanujan would’ve been pleased as a punch when he realized this) that 139 is a prime number and the sum of five consecutive prime numbers: 19 + 23 + 29 + 31 + 37!!

File photo of Ramanujan (centre) at the time of being conferred a Bachelor’s Degree at Trinity College.

*The original quote by G H Hardy (thanks to Richard) goes thus:

‘The half-mile from St. George’s Square to the Oval is my old brandy nomination for the most distinguished walk in the world.’

Richard tells me that Old Brandy came to mean a taste that was eccentric, esoteric, but just within the confines of reason.

This piece appeared first on the author's blog. Read the complete version here. 

A poet and children’s author, Priya Narayanan loves to conjure stories for her forever-at-war brats over many cups of coffee and chocolate chip ice cream. When not practising and teaching design, she likes to travel solo and read everything that comes her way.

Following the Friend of Numbers: Q and A with Satwik Gade

Our hot off the press picture book Srinivasa Ramanujan: Friend of Numbers written by Priya Narayanan and illustrated by Satwik Gade, follows the singular fascination of a mathematical genius. 

In the first of this two-part series, we spoke to the illustrator to get a glimpse of what went on behind the scenes. 

What appeals to you about illustrating a children’s book?

I grew up reading some beautifully illustrated children's books. I vividly remember the joy it brought me and the way it shaped my imagination. In my teens, I became very sure that I wanted to do the same for other children when I grew up. I used to think that telling a story was all about narration, but working on children's books taught me that storytelling is really about expression. While making narrative drawings is about skill and representation, expressive drawings are just pure fun, where you can play fast and loose with all the rules. In a sense, it’s about taking the joy inside me and putting it on display with the hope that the joy is infectious.  

Does your creative process involve research for illustrating books like Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why and most recently, Srinivasa Ramanujan: Friend of Numbers?

The bulk of the research is done by the writer and editors. And they just share all that research with me. And I can ask them questions and clarify things without making the effort to do the research myself. That said, with both Ambedkar and Ramanujan, I had happened to read, several years earlier, source materials that the writers based their work on. It was a happy coincidence and really helped me free my style because the content was already in my head. 

But clothing, landscape, hairstyles and other little details that add to the big picture only come through painstaking research. In that regard, thanks to the internet, illustrators today have it really easy! Research that could take days for artists that I grew up reading, I can just do in minutes. Earlier artists would have to base their drawings on written descriptions found in archival material and encyclopedias. But today we can see the actual images and get the details just right.  

Mathematical genius Ramanujan’s story is your third book with Tulika. How do you like mathematics as a subject, do you get his fascination with numbers?


As a student I was interested in maths but the interest would vary with each teacher and their teaching style. In my high school, coaching for competitive exams ruined any enthusiasm I had for mathematics. Only one tuition teacher managed to keep me interested mathematics by trying to bring some joy into the subject. And then in my 20s I rediscovered my love for the subject when I read a book called Alex's Adventures in Numberland. That is the kind of book that makes enthusiasm for a subject infectious. 

The vibrant pictures in this book are intelligently themed around the numbers and patterns discussed in the story. What went behind while portraying these things?

The magic squares (kite page), number sequences and other elements that come out in the drawings which can't be found in the text were my additions to the book made possible because of Alex's Adventures in Numberland. All young adults should read this book and if the kids are really young, parents should read it and tell them stories from this book. Another adult writer who finds mathematics in art and art in mathematics is Dan Brown. His stories are thrillers but embedded in the narrative is a wealth of mathematical and artistic curios and antiquities. That also rekindled my interest in mathematics and kept me ready for a book like Srinivasa Ramanujan: Friend of Numbers

I had also read The Man Who Knew Infinity, a biography of Ramanujan that the writer Priya Narayanan, used as source material. An uncle who had read it bought the book for us to read when it was originally published. This book doesn't talk so much about mathematics as it does about the life and times that Srinivasa Ramanujan lived in. It has vivid descriptions of Cambridge and the culture of mathematics that people like Godfrey Hardy propagated in Cambridge. Also it focuses on the work and sacrifices that go behind the making of a genius.  

How do you overcome creative blocks, if you have any?

If someone knows the answer to this question, please tell me! Creative blocks are the worst. As my long suffering editors are well aware, my creative blocks last months sometimes and there is nothing I can do except sit and wait. I feel that, maybe, just putting pen to paper and forcing yourself to just draw something can break a block and create something beautiful. But this doesn't always happen. Sometimes seeing someone else's inspiring work can help overcome a block. But it might just make me too dejected also! But one advice that I read in a book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance resonates with me: if you are not able to make a whole drawing, then zoom into the task. Just take one small element and focus all your energy on that little element. It might trigger a release!

Can you name two of your favourite children’s book illustrators and tell us why?

I have a ton of favorite artists I grew up reading. But I want to give a shout-out to two contemporary artists who really inspire me everyday: SandhyaPrabhat and Prabha Mallaya. Sandhya's colours and textures are just eye-popping. She uses all bright colors and manages to contrast them, which is the very essence of Indian crafts. Prabha Mallaya is more in the mould of western artists with illustrations that are uber-real or magical-real. Her animal drawings are just something else. Both of their artworks are incredibly expressive.
Any upcoming projects, we’d like to know. 

I haven't taken on a new project to focus on my MFA which I am doing a decade after my Bachelors. So I want to do it right. Also I want to write and illustrate a book by myself. So I am hoping that will be my next project. Maybe my experience studying in the US will provide fodder for the book. Fingers Crossed.

Grab your copy of the book Srinivasa Ramanujan: Friend of Numbers to trace the inspiring mathematician's trail!

 Satwik Gade is an artist and designer with a special interest in illustration and typography. He enjoys reading books and is inspired by Indian mythology, comics and Impressionist art. Illustrating children's books is his biggest fear and he is enjoying facing it!